City to release progress reports with new formula, lower grades

Tomorrow, when the city releases its progress reports for elementary and middle schools, parents will begin the annual rite of deciphering their schools’ report cards. But this year the tradition will be complicated by a new formula and, for many schools, lower grades.

The city is trying to accomplish several goals at once: It is hoping to improve the methods it uses to measure student progress and reduce the wild fluctuation and inflation of grades that has marked past years’ progress reports. At the same time, city officials hope to convince parents, teachers and principals that the grades are meaningful, especially in light of this year’s sharp drop in test scores across the city.

Last year, the city gave 84 percent of elementary and middle schools A’s, while 13 percent received a B, and 2 percent received a C. Just five schools were given D’s, and two were given F’s. Those grades were much higher than the year before, when 38 percent of schools were given an A. In 2007, when the reports were first issued, 23 percent received that rating.

For this year’s progress reports, the city is making several big changes to how the grades are calculated. First, it is modifying how the city calculates students’ progress. In the past, a significant percentage of a school’s grade  — 85 percent for elementary and middle schools — was based on student performance on state math and reading scores. So when test scores went up throughout the city in 2009 (reflecting a statewide trend), the grades soared on progress reports.

This year the city is doing something different. It is comparing the progress of each student to other students who began the school year performing at the same level.

In other words, students who scored a level 3 on the math exam in 2009 will have their 2010 math scores judged against other students who scored similarly the year before. If one student ends the year with a higher score than another student who started at the same place, the first student’s school will receive more credit.

“It’s still kid to kid, but kid to kids who started at the same place,” Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s deputy chancellor for accountability, told WNYC’s Beth Fertig. “It’s a much more precise measure.”

The new formula is based on Colorado’s “growth model” for measuring student progress.

In addition, the city is distributing progress report grades across a curve for the first time. Only a quarter of schools will be granted A’s, and roughly two-thirds will receive either a B or C.

Knowing that state education officials planned to make the tests more difficult to pass, the city announced the curve in January. But when the drop in test scores was more severe than the city had anticipated, officials decided to add a floor to how far schools’ progress report grades can fall.

Under this year’s curve, 15 percent of schools are slated to receive the lowest two grades. High stakes are attached to the progress report grades. Grades of D or F, as well as a string of three C’s in a row, trigger scrutiny from the city, which can frequently lead to a school being restructured or closed.

Critics of the school accountability system who charge that the reports rely too heavily on the state exams are not likely to be assuaged by the changes. Students’ scores on the standardized tests still account for 85 percent of a school’s total grade. The rest is determined by reviews of the school environment and the results of surveys given to students, parents and teachers.

Some principals also remain wary of how their students’ progress is compared to that of students at other schools. The city has historically assigned schools “peer groups” for the purpose of comparison, and some principals have complained that those groups of schools are not as similar as the city says.

The city is also making a number of smaller changes to this year’s progress report grading. For middle schools, a pilot program will factor students’ class grades into schools’ progress reports, as the city does for high school report cards.

And schools will be given more credit this year for closing the performance gap between their general education students, their special education students, and those learning English. Also for the first time this year, schools in the city’s District 75 program, which serves the most severely disabled students, will also receive progress reports.

High schools are expected to receive their progress reports in November. The city is not changing how high school grades will be calculated this year.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.